DUBLIN, IRELAND | When Padraig Harrington captured the Irish Amateur Open in 1995, it was essentially a local event with only nine visiting players making the halfway cut. By last year, that representation had more than doubled, highlighting the increasing challenge for home players in attempting to contain the invaders.
Not even the threat of Icelandic ash offered respite this weekend insofar as all 51 overseas competitors got into Dublin when air travel was resumed Thursday. All of which could be attributed to a promotional drive 15 years ago by the Golfing Union of Ireland, who wrote to each of the various European federations offering to cover the total cost of sending their leading amateur player.
“The recent dominance of non-Irish competitors illustrates the quality of the overseas entry stemming from that move,” tournament director Seamus Smith said. “We now have the championship we wanted in that the response remains strong, even in this, a non-Walker Cup year.” Ironically, the 14 scratchings were mainly from local entrants.
As it happened, one of that increasingly rare breed – an Irish winner of the Irish Amateur Open – was to be seen out on the Royal Dublin links Saturday, though not in competitive mode. Noel Fox, the champion of 2000 and 2003, confessed it felt strange being there, simply to watch his younger brother, James, fighting the wind.
“The recent spate of international winners reflects the growing popularity of the event and is bound to lead to improved standards here at home,” said Fox, who turned professional five years ago and, despite a determined battle to gain European Tour status, is currently consigned to the third-string EuroPro Tour. “Potential challengers would also have seen the Championship as an ideal platform for a move to professional level,” he went on.
“For Continental Europeans with an eye on the British Amateur, the opportunity of four competitive rounds on a links course is invaluable. And with the 2006 staging at Portmarnock being followed by four at Royal Dublin, they’re experiencing links terrain of the highest quality.
“Like Lytham and the St Andrews Trophy, with four stroke-play rounds and a cut, this is about as close to a pro event as you can get. It should stand you in good stead, as recent winners Louis Oosthuizen, Richie McEvoy and Richie Ramsay have shown.”
Ramsay won the South African Open last winter and Oosthuizen also had a European Tour breakthrough victory in the Open de Andalucia in March. McEvoy, on the other hand, is without a win and has been to the Qualifying School on seven occasions since turning professional with a plus-3 handicap in 2001.
But what of Fox himself? “I’m afraid I’ve been going in the opposite direction,” he admitted with a wry smile. Which brought us to Rory McIlroy, sensational winner at Quail Hollow the previous weekend, whose best of three Irish Amateur Open performances was in losing a play-off in 2006.
Fox, a keen student of the game, is probably Harrington’s closest friend in golf. And what captivated him most about McIlroy was the way an eagle on the long seventh, his 16th hole on Friday afternoon, turned around the youngster’s entire tournament challenge.
“If you look at Rory’s previous performances this year, nothing was happening,” he said. “He was getting different diagnoses about his back and probably thinking, ‘Maybe this isn’t the fairytale I thought it was going to be.’ Then suddenly, something goes his way and he thinks, ‘Hold on, things aren’t so bad after all.’
“That one hole got Rory into the weekend. But if his 4-iron hits a hard patch on the green and finishes 20 feet rather than six feet from the hole, he’s heading home. That’s how fine the line is.”
He went on: “There are no certainties and I suspect that when Padraig looks at me on the golf course, it reminds him of that fact. I played recently with James Heath, who got a European Tour card in 2005 and is now back with me on the EuroPro Tour.”
Heath is the 27-year-old who swept all before him as an amateur in 2004, winning the Lytham Trophy and the English Amateur Championship. In fact, his record aggregate of 266 at Royal Lytham was five strokes better than Tom Lehman did when winning the Open Championship there in 1996.
“You look at someone in amateur ranks and figure them a great player but they struggle, then you look at someone else who appears average but can still win €1 million a year,” said Fox.
“For reasons I can’t fathom, instead of doing what Rory did at Quail Hollow, I don’t seem to be able to use a good break to push on. I always seem to find myself battling on the cut line, irrespective of whether I start well or badly. It frustrates the hell out of me, the margins are so tight on tour.”
As brisk north-easterlies from the Irish Sea swept Royal Dublin’s classic duneland, some of Europe’s leading amateurs had a very different reason for venting their frustration. Tree-lined terrain back home was never like this.